The Olympics is a dream come true for the lucky few who secure their tickets. But it can be a nightmare for those on the bubble, forced out either by injuries, politics, or a country's excess of qualified competitors.
As host, China had struggled to choose the "right" athletes to fill the limited spots on its Olympic roster. But the final verdict was announced on Saturday, as China's 2008 Olympic team elicited both smiles and tears.
Superstars like 100m hurdles reigning champion Liu Xiang and NBA all-star center Yao Ming head the list with no one surprised at their inclusion. But there were also some surprising exclusions like badminton women's singles world champion Zhu Lin and men's 69kg weightlifting reigning champion Zhang Guozheng, both of whom would have a realistic shot at winning gold next month.
Twenty-two Athens Olympic gold medalists were left off this year's list.
Most of the victims come from sports China traditionally dominates like diving, badminton and weightlifting.
In diving, two-time Olympic champion Tian Liang, Athens gold medalists Hu Jia and Li Ting, as well as Peng Bo, Yang Jinghui, and Lao Lishi have all been replaced by members of the younger generation.
Tian was China's No 1 on the men's team after Athens but was dismissed by the national team, which claimed Tian violated rules by getting involved in commercial activities and entertainment appearances.
Tian came back to his provincial team to stay in shape for the Beijing Games, but the national team chose not to recognize his determination and he was forced into retirement.
Unlike Tian, Yang and Lao retired of their own accord. Hu, Peng and Li took part in the Olympic trials but failed in their attempts.
But the team is still packed with stars and the new generation is no less hungry for each of the eight diving gold medals.
Weightlifters Zhang Guozheng and Tang Gonghong are almost level with their younger challengers in their head-to-head records since Athens. But the governing body still decided to drop them, fearful of potential injuries due to their age.
Zhang overcame the injury he sustained after his Athens victory and has worked hard for a chance to defend his gold medal. But with the rise of World Cup winner Liao Hui and with Athens 62kg gold winner Shi Zhongyong's switching to 69kg, there were one too many men for the two Olympic spots, and Zhang was the odd man out.
Liao beat both Zhang and Shi in April's Olympic qualifier. The younger Shi appears to be in better physical condition, though Zhang has kept good form during the national team's closed-door training camp.
From heaven to hell
Women's weightlifter Yang Lian has lived a similar from-heaven-to-hell story (cong tian tang dao di yu).
Yang had been the favorite in the women's 48kg just days before the final Olympic list was released, but lost her spot to Chen Xiexia at the last minute.
Yang's family sold their house years ago to raise money for her training. Her father said it is a huge blow to his daughter's career.
"She was on the list a few days a ago. We do not know what happened at the last moment," her father told Sina.com. "Do not bother her right now. She needs to take a break by herself."
Reports link Yang's dismissal to a drug scandal during the 2001 National Games in which Yang tested positive and was banned by the national team.
Another weightlifter Tang Gonghong, a gold medalist in the Athens +75kg category, will also miss the Beijing Games due to her slumping form.
Injuries played a big role in naming China's badminton team. China has three tickets for the women's badminton singles competition, and with world No 1 and 2 Xie Xingfang and Lu Lan automatically through the battle for the remaining spot was a showdown between Zhang Ning and Zhu Lin.
Zhu appeared on the brink of taking the spot after winning the 2007 World Championships as Zhang struggled with a knee injury.
With a much better record in major international competitions over the past year, 24-year-old Zhu seemed to be a shoo-in for her first Olympic berth, until the last moment when Zhang recovered from the injury and got the nod.
Zhu was devastated, but her mother offered some comforting words for Zhu, who will have to wait another four years for Olympic glory.
"Zhang Ning is 33 and still competes for China in the Olympics," Zhu's mother told Sina.com. "Zhu still has a good future and has the chance to compete in the Olympics later."
Other stars were forced to withdraw from Games consideration with injuries as well.
Olympic champion Xing Huina will not be able to defend her women's 10,000m title on home soil.
The 24-year-old Shandong native beat Ethiopians Ejegayehu Dibaba and Derartu Tulu to win in Athens.
But she missed the World Championships in Osaka with a knee injury and moved to the US in January to train with well-known China-born coach James Li. But it did not seem to help.
She also lost her former coach Wang Dexian, who was banned for life after Sun Yingjie, another athlete under his wing, failed a drug test in 2005.
In wrestling, Wang Xu, who won China's first wrestling Olympic gold four years ago, would have been a favorite on the mat. In the past four years, she established herself as one of the world's best wrestlers in big tournaments and has a better record than her teammates in Olympic qualifiers.
But she hurt her shoulder in a training session earlier this month, forcing her to say a premature goodbye to the Beijing Games.
But Wang said she will devote her life to the sport.
"It's not the end of the world. I will come back after four years. I never give up," she told Sina.com.
Other high-profile names joining the injury list are Olympic pommel horse champion Teng Haibin, China's only gymnastics gold medalist in Athens, women's 100m breaststroke winner Luo Xuejuan, who has retired from the sport due to a heart problem, and women's soccer player Qu Feifei, who suffered a fibula fracture in a warm-up last week.
The nonstop circus that is China's men's soccer team is also not free of roster surprises; this time the victim is striker Zhu Ting.
Zhu has been a usual starter in the past and his Olympic chances seemed never in doubt.
But the sudden reshuffling of the coaching staff three weeks before the Games, which saw Serbian head coach Ratomir Dujkovic replaced by Chinese Yin Tiesheng, changed Zhu's fate.
Dujkovic was a big fan of Zhu, but Yin was not as impressed and dropped the striker in a bid to erase the influence left by the coach's predecessor.
(China Daily 07/29/2008 page22)